Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ had firmly established itself as a set text by the time I was sitting my GCSEs in the mid-1980s.
For many Western readers like me, Achebe’s story about the sudden disruption to a Nigerian community by the arrival of white Christian missionaries was a key encounter with post-colonial literature in the decades after its 1958 publication. Its doomed hero, who hangs himself at the end of the novel, devastatingly distilled the 19 century African experience of colonialism. It was also one of the first works of fiction to present African village life from an African perspective.
The novel’s international success opened a gateway for African writers, but it did not come without its controversy. Achebe’s decision to write in English – the tongue of the colonialist oppressor – rather than his indigenous Igbo was furiously debated in Africa. Similar debates still rage in the Arab speaking world today. Even Achebe said that English was a language that “history has forced down our throat” and yet it is clear, now, that his ground-breaking novel could not have been read by eight million readers were it not written in English. What’s more, his literary style drew heavily on the oral tradition of Africa, and of the Igbo people. I remember being struck by the cadences and rhythms of these novels as a teenager: they seemed to be strikingly distinct from that of a ‘western’ novel.
No-one could have accused Achebe of writing for, and in collusion with, the Western literary tradition. He was a robust critic of the visions of Africa found in Joseph Conrad’s novels, and of the racism embedded in the West as a whole.
African diasporic writing is going through a golden age now and it is debateable that such generational confidence would have come were it not for Achebe’s work, as well as that of Wole Soyinka’s. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the young, prize-winning Nigerian author has spoken of her debt to Achebe: "Reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well." She could be speaking for an entire generation. Achebe began the long process of literary reclamation of Africa’s history from generations of colonial writers, that is still taking place to this day.